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Harry Taylor, WestJet’s chief financial officer, becomes interim chief executive officer Monday.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

WestJet’s new top executive takes charge as the Calgary-based airline is ramping up after a lengthy slowdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harry Taylor, WestJet’s chief financial officer, becomes interim chief executive officer Monday at a crucial time for the country’s second-biggest airline – optimism, expectations and tensions have rarely been higher.

“What keeps me up at night is I worry about our people,” Mr. Taylor said in a phone interview from Calgary. “We have, this organization has been through as the whole world has been through a cataclysmic, catastrophic event. We were at the pointy edge, we laid off people – some permanently, some temporarily. Now we’re trying to rebuild.”

The airline is trying to hire 2,000 people to meet rising demand as travellers book flights to see family and friends or visit sun destinations again, even as pandemic rules and low staffing levels cause long lineups and frustrations at the airports.

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As COVID-19 took hold in March, 2020, governments in Canada and around the world closed borders and imposed quarantines on those who had to travel. WestJet grounded 80 per cent of its 180-plane fleet and laid off almost two-thirds of its 14,000 flight attendants, pilots and other employees.

Shutdowns stretched into the first part of 2021, when WestJet was running at just 15 per cent of pre-COVID capacity.

The increase in seat sales and resumption of several routes, driven by greater vaccination rates and eased travel restrictions, began in the third quarter. Today, WestJet is operating at about 70-per-cent capacity, and has added dozens of destinations, including Mexico, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Seven thousand WestJet employees are on the job, short of the 9,000 the airline hopes to employ by the end of the year, said Mr. Taylor, who has been WestJet’s finance chief since 2015 and moves into the CEO’s office to replace Ed Sims. Mr. Sims retired after four years to return to his native New Zealand.

WestJet, owned by Onex Corp., is conducting a search for a permanent CEO, and Mr. Taylor said he plans to return to his finance role when the new boss arrives.

Before moving to WestJet, Mr. Taylor had a 20-year career in finance in Canada and the United States at Canadian Tire Corp., Holt Renfrew, Home Depot and PepsiCo. The father of two grown children was born in Winnipeg and moved to Toronto at age 9. He is a chartered accountant who studied at the University of Toronto and University of Western Ontario, where he earned an MBA.

Like his counterpart at Air Canada, he is unilingual. Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau ignited a controversy this month when he admitted he could not speak French, despite living in Montreal for 14 years.

“I do not speak French, at least, not very well ... it’s been a long time regret of mine as a Canadian,” Mr. Taylor said.

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The pandemic reshaped the airline business, forcing upon it deep losses, layers of regulations and costs associated with quickly screening and handling passengers in confined spaces while adhering to public-health rules. Passengers will continue to see more touchless check-ins and screenings, and mask requirements will persist for a long time, he predicted.

Working at an airline has become tougher, Mr. Taylor said, in part because passengers who are returning to the skies are frustrated by the shifting labyrinth of testing, vaccine and quarantine requirements, and long lines at security and boarding gates. Some passengers are also out of practice at flying, and have forgotten the usual rules, such as those about carry-on bags and liquids, he said.

“There is a tremendous pressure on our organization to deliver the service that we aspired to deliver to our guests. And that is to differentiate ourselves by being more caring and friendly. And yet we have guests who are frustrated. They haven’t travelled for a while. They are sometimes a little more emotional. And so they become very angry very quickly.”

This has led to more confrontations between employees and passengers.

Still, WestJet said it has flown millions of customers this year, and banned just 188 for not complying with mask-wearing rules. “We are trying at every turn to ensure that we make the travel experience easier, not more difficult for them, but unruly [passengers] are really a very, very low percentage,” WestJet spokeswoman Morgan Bell said.

Domestic seat sales will rebound to pre-COVID levels by the summer, Mr. Taylor said, followed in the fall by Latin America and the Caribbean. “People are just saying, ‘I’m done. I’ve got to visit my friends. I’ve got to take that vacation. I’ve got to visit my family.’ All of the recovery we’re seeing is visiting friends and relatives or leisure travel.”

Cross-border and transatlantic routes are laggards, he said, mainly because of the varied and persistent pandemic travel restrictions. He added that business travel is another segment that is slow to rebound.

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